For many years I had a half-baked idea that I could be a screenwriter. I don’t phrase it that way to put myself down, but instead to acknowledge that I consistently failed to put forth the effort to actually complete an entire screenplay.
I’d always been praised for dialogue, so it was easy for me to write a scene of banter that went on for pages and pages. Where I fell down was story structure. And anyone who’s ever read a screenwriting book will tell you that story structure is really a much bigger deal than dialogue. I can’t imagine being able to nail story structure on your first outline, but I would never give myself more than one chance to figure it out and I resisted listening to any feedback that wasn’t positive. The result: a bunch of thirty-page first drafts.
I’ve taken two kinds of writing classes in the last few years: screenwriting and romance novel writing. They’re both difficult for the same reason: they both need to follow a structure within a prescribed length. There’s only so many pages to hit the right beats and meet or subvert the expectations of the audience. (Yes, even in something as formulaic as a romance novel you surprise the audience.) Both of these media require plenty of discipline.
When you come up with the seed of a great idea for a screenplay or a romance novel, it’s usually just the setup. It’s rare (for me at least) to have any idea of how the conflict will play out, or the story will resolve until I dig much deeper into the initial germ of an idea. Taking that premise and shaping it into something that fits the story structure established thousands of years ago is a something I’ve never quite been able to crack.
Well, no. Not exactly. But I think my perspective as an experience designer has started to bring it into better focus. One of the great and frustrating things about my job is that we’re working in a space that doesn’t have a wealth of best practices. Traditional UX has these resources, but in my studio, we’re typically borrowing from several disciplines at once, UX among them. There’s no Syd Field or Robert McKee guide on how to design an experience for a set of 10 foot high responsive digital columns. So, we dive into an array of work in adjacent fields and media, do a lot of prototyping and testing, and start to compile our own set of best practices.
I’ve come to realize that one of those adjacent fields might be screenwriting. Although the work we do isn’t as specifically prescribed as a formatted screenplay, every experience follows some kind of loose story framework: call to action to the user, user goes of some short journey of discovery by interacting, and then returns to where they came from with some additional knowledge or insight. Putting aside the differences in the experience of “passive viewing” (something I’ve never believed in anyway) versus interacting, what screenwriters, romance novelists, and XDs do is basically the same thing: figure out what’s going on with your audience at every step in the journey and engineer a structure to provide them with the most immersive experience possible.
The tools and raw materials are different, but the task is pretty similar. In fact, much of the overall process of creating the finished product is the same.
Like screenwriters, XDs are usually the first ones into the pool on any given project. Although the makeup of concepting teams varies, there’s always an XD presence as early on as possible. The concept may be totally open and original or spun off from an existing experience. There may already be characters or content to work with, or the team may need to invent everything from scratch. Once the concept is approved by the client (in movie world: the financiers), the XD starts in on the framework of the experience much like the writer would break a story. What needs to happen and how can I structure this in a way that makes sense to the user/viewer but isn’t completely predictable?
It’s that negotiation between working within the conventions but trying to add some new variable to the equation. Sure, you can create a completely out-of-left-field interactive experience, but if the user doesn’t know what to do when they stand in front of it, they’ll eventually walk away. I’m pretty sure that writing for video games straddles these two domains.
As the project goes from the skeleton of an idea to something more fully fleshed out, other specialists and professionals take the “script” and make adjustments. There are constant rewrites for awhile. Creative directors and clients give notes, producers pull together all the moving parts and keep the budget in check, the designers and technologists start to bring everything to life, piece by piece. Often you pivot or make edits when you see how something plays out at scale. Compromises and improvements get implemented. And with each production iteration, the XD’s role becomes more oversight than hands-on.
We’re usually the role that feels like the finished product is quite different (for better or worse) than what we initially envisioned. Sometimes it feels like disappointment. We remember that first draft, before we killed our darlings. I can’t think of a project where I didn’t have to lose the weirdest, coolest element somewhere along the way. It’s hard to admit that that’s often for the best. Even more so than in filmmaking, creating interactive experiences is a team sport and sometimes you can’t have your way (or can’t get someone to pay for it).
There’s some truism about screenplays that goes something like this: a good screenplay turn into a good movie or a terrible movie. A bad screenplay can only be a bad movie. If the structure isn’t there from the start, all the amazing design and technology and acting can’t make it a winner.
And that’s not to say, “hey, XD and screenwriting is so much more important than these other things!” The designers and technologists and producers and CDs on our team have come up with some amazing solves for inherent XD problems. But when you’re the person responsible for that underlying engineering, it helps to have those best practices and rules to follow. It would be a lot easier to be able to pick up a Syd Field book and remind myself of how the whole thing must work.
So I just might do that. Jeremy tipped me off to John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast and as I’ve been listening, much of it resonates with me as an XD. The fundamental importance of structure. The stripping away of anything that doesn’t provide some vital nugget of information or push the story forward. The careful arrangement of major beats and minor beats to make the audience feel a certain way at a certain time. Avoiding the dreaded exposition fairy. So many of these principles are the same, just viewed through a slightly different lens. I think screenwriters have already figured out a lot of the issues XD folks wrestle with.
I’m kind of excited to pick up those screenwriting books again and figure out exactly how I can apply some story technique to my work. Being an XD has forced me to work within an iterative process with lots of feedback along the way. My first draft is never perfect. I can finally accept that. I don’t know what that means for my screenplays or my romance novels, but I’m pretty sure that if I tried to write one today, I’d work much differently. I wouldn’t start with the first line of dialogue from the first scene. I’d take a stab at engineering the story, and then take like twenty more stabs. It’s still not going to be perfect, but it will probably be a lot better than the thirty-page first draft I wrote 5 years ago.